The home run is the most beloved play in baseball, but why? The easily plated runs are surely reasons for the crowd to erupt, or perhaps it’s the sheer distance the ball travels that’s alluring to fans. In my personal opinion, the reason a home run is so exciting is because it creates a new power dynamic between the batter and pitcher. When a home run is hit, the batter has exerted his dominance over the man on the mound; the one who’s supposed to have autonomy over the game. But yet, despite the home run’s awe-inspiring features, the MLB and fans alike must not get carried away.
Last season, there were 6,105 home runs hit, more than any other season in baseball history. There are a myriad of reasons for the historic long-ball rate, but there are two which are the most concerning for the future of baseball. If home run totals continue their upward trend, we’re headed for a dystopian future in which the results of an at-bat are binary — either a home run or a strikeout.
The first major reason contributing to the home run’s increased prevalence is its marketability. When a home run is hit, the lay fan as well as the most seasoned veteran of the game will “ooh” and “ahh” at the sight of a ball leaving the yard, myself included. The MLB, which has been desperate to improve the excitement-level of the game for the past few years, has taken advantage of this reaction-phenomenon. Speeding up pace of play is at the forefront of the MLB’s “improvement” strategies, but ball-alteration is one that has already been implemented. The “juiced” baseballs are doing exactly what they’re intended to do: leave the yard faster and more frequently. The MLB can deny the juiced baseballs all they want, but there’s no hiding the fact that the league’s home run total was 7% higher than in 2016 and 24% higher than in 2015. What this year, 30%? 40%? Where is the line drawn?
Been sitting on this… Exit velo and launch angle and it’s correlation to % chance of becoming a homer. 2014 vs. 2017 pic.twitter.com/UrfVVFVuJB
— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) March 2, 2018
The other major factor is the new-school, “hit it in the air” approach of hitting. Long gone are the days of Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, who would hit .360 year in and year out despite having single-digit home runs. As a matter of fact, the last hitter to finish the season with an average of over .350 was Josh Hamilton in 2010 (.359). My point being, players are sacrificing their averages in order to hit the ball with more authority (on paper). Last season, 41 batters hit over 30 home runs while only 12 batted above .310. Of the 41 batters with 30 dingers, 36 of them had strikeout totals in the triple digits. It seems as though the days of “hit line drives” and “tough with two” are behind us, and the daddy hack era has begun.
— Josh Donaldson (@BringerOfRain20) March 1, 2017
This is due largely to the presence of analytics in baseball, which are now used in every decision made by managers and front office executives. I don’t pretend to understand sabermetrics in its entirety, but part of me believes that winning baseball games goes beyond the numbers. Joey Gallo hit 41 home runs last year and slugged .537, but he just barely stayed above the Mendoza Line with an abysmal average of .209 and 196 strikeouts. Sure, he might be a solid pick for your FanDuel lineup, but is he a guy you feel comfortable with at the plate in an important situation? I doubt it.
If hitters continue to change their swings to cater toward the sabermetric benefits of pure power, the game of baseball will eventually resemble nothing more than a giant Home Run Derby with far more swings and misses. After a while, fans will become numb to the home run. Chicks will no longer dig the long ball, but rather the diving catch or the off-balance throw. Viewers will pray that the ball stays in the yard so they can be reminded of the game that once was, with fielders that were active and more than just field-ornaments.
Of course, I’m exaggerating. But this is the path we are on. Yesterday, on Opening Day, there were 30 home runs hit. Yes, it’s exciting that the first pitch of the season was taken deep. Yes, it’s awesome to see a walk-off home run and a few laser beams into the upper deck. Don’t get me wrong, home runs are still a unique spectacle. But at a certain point, they will lose their zeal and take away from the game more than they give to it.
The intricacies of baseball are what makes the game beautiful. The tail on a two-seam fastball, an outfielder’s route to a deep fly ball, or even a perfect frame-job by a catcher? Now we’re talking. In my opinion, those things can be just as captivating as a casual home run. Our job as fans is to enjoy everything this game has to offer, not just the big flies. Let’s not let too many home runs ruin baseball.
Image: Time Magazine